PARKSTON — Dallas Chief Eagle stands at the head of a group of fourth grade students at Parkston Elementary School, holding a variety of small hoops in both hands. With a gesture, he moves and twists his body and the hoops, forming figures that resemble a butterfly, a flying bird and a half-moon.
In front of him, the students watch and mimic his movements, carefully forming the shapes the 71-year-old demonstrates before them.
Chief Eagle, who hails from Yellow Bear Canyon, near Martin, has been working with students in Parkston over the course of a week, teaching some of the finer points of the Lakota hoop dance as well as oral storytelling as part of an artist-in-residence program through the South Dakota Arts Council. The program, which he's been involved with for about 30 years, is a way to bring students new culture and a new approach to navigating school and daily life.
“When I see a kid finally realize that they can stop the negativity, I know that’s going to help him navigate. He can tap into that intuition and he’s surprised that he can do that for himself,” Chief Eagle said, “but he has to practice.”
A K-12 art teacher by trade, Chief Eagle holds a master’s degree in guidance counseling and personal services. He is a recognized master of the Lakota hoop dance and has worked as an artist in residence and a mentor through his hoop dance studio in the All Nations Gathering Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He is a member of the Rosebud Lakota Nation and shares and teaches the traditional dance in a way that students learn about the development of their own character.
Part culture lesson and part self-reflection, the program Chief Eagle brings to schools allows students to appreciate the art of the dance itself, but also the importance of aligning themselves with their spirit. One way he does this is to have the students focus on the Rock Nation, which represents their ancestors. He said focusing on stones allows the students to be able to shut off elements of negativity, stress or fear.
“We bring the oldest ones, the Rock Nation, because they know how to sit and do nothing. They don’t move. So, I teach the children that, for one whole minute, they are not to move their brain,” Chief Eagle said. “The brain wants to be in charge, and the brain can cause a lot of trouble. So we have to learn to manage that part.”
He works with several groups of students a day, from elementary to high school. For the fourth graders taking part in Parkston on Tuesday morning, Chief Eagle gathered the students on a buffalo skin in the middle of the gymnasium floor and a quiet conversation began. The minute-long challenge to switch their brain power to spirit power ensued, with a peaceful silence filling the space.
Soon after, they are taking up one third of the basketball court, spread out so that the students can watch Chief Eagle and his instructions. Plastic hoops rattle and occasionally clatter to the floor, but the students are clearly picking up on his demonstration.
Colleen Mette, an art teacher at the Parkston School District, helped bring Chief Eagle to the school after writing a handful of grants to pay for his time and transport. She said about 130 students total at the school are taking part in at least some of the exercises, and have responded positively to both the message Chief Eagle brings and the challenge of the dance.
“One group said it was hard. It’s not something that comes easy,” Mette said. “I told them it was easy for him, but this is your first day. He’s been doing this for a long time. Everything takes practice.”
While she is always on the lookout for innovative ways to engage students in her classroom, she had never before secured the services of an artist-in-residence. With the COVID-19 pandemic less intense than it was at this time last year, it was a chance to bring someone in from outside the school to demonstrate the variety of culture that resides within the bounds of South Dakota.
“I just wanted them to see the culture that we have here in South Dakota, and what’s available without traveling outside the state and how beautiful that culture is,” Mette said. “Arts aren’t just drawing and painting — there are other aspects to the arts.”
Chief Eagle, for his part, is glad to be back out on the road sharing his knowledge. COVID-19 kept him out of the schools for nearly 18 months.
“I was out of a job for a year and a half and just working on my property at home most of the time. Living really poor,” Chief Eagle said with a chuckle.
But as infection numbers declined, schools began reaching out to him again so that he can bring his cross-cultural lessons to their students. Chief Eagle said he has brought his program to places such as Sisseton, Wounded Knee, Allen, Hot Springs and Kimball, among others this year.
Getting in touch with their spirit can have a focusing, calming effect that can be applied to all aspects of life, he said. He recalled he had been working with one school on the Rosebud Reservation to help students focus and better prepare for the state standardized testing in April. Chief Eagle said being able to shift their focus allows them to drop their stress levels prior to the test.
Although he only got to teach two of those classes before COVID-19 interrupted the work, he was excited to see what those techniques could bring out of the students in terms of their test scores.
“(The tests are) frustrating, stressful. We’re going to teach you how to turn that off and then we’re going to go into the spirit and your spirit is going to take you through the test,” Chief Eagle said. “Then the tired station goes off, the stress station goes off. There’s no such thing as quitting or having doubts.”
Whether it be taking a test, playing a game of basketball or doing your chores, focusing on the spirit can be useful for students navigating the waters of their educational years. It can help improve the quality of student experiences in almost any situation, Chief Eagle said.
“It can apply to any child or anyone,” Chief Eagle said. “You have to say 'brain, stop and settle down. Rest, it’s not your turn right now. The spirit is going to be in charge right now.'”